If you have been a Christian for any amount of time, you know that spiritual passion, sight, and affections ebb and flow. At times our sense of spiritual realities can be strong and vibrant; other times, our hearts feel like lead weights and we find ourselves longing for God to visit us once again and bring refreshment (Psalm 85:4-7). These seasons are usually referred to as times of “spiritual drought” or “spiritual dryness,” and find intimate expression in many of the Psalms. David often cried out to God in times where his soul seemed like dust, and he yearned to be refreshed by the presence of the Lord (Psalm 13; Psalm 63). Other Psalmists expressed their longing to have their parched souls to be replenished by the Lord (Psalm 42). Those who have tasted of the goodness of Christ know what it means to be without that taste; it leaves us pleading, “light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death” (Psalm 13:3)
Spiritual drought, though a persistent and unwelcome visitor, is not something with which we must constantly live. There are Biblical means by which we can, by grace, put ourselves in the way of refreshment; we can be restored to once again feel the joy of our salvation. But this can only happen if we are able to discern why we might be experiencing spiritual dryness so we can take the appropriate action. With this in mind, I would like to suggest a few reasons we may be experiencing a season of spiritual drought and provide the correlating remedies.
Peter’s warning could not be more explicit: “Abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (I Peter 2:11). Impure thoughts and freshly cultivated fantasies will only dull our sense of spiritual things; that is what Peter means when he tells us that lust “wages war against the soul.” Harboring lust defiles our conscience, feeds our sinful flesh, and withers our spiritual vitality. If are experiencing the ravages of spiritual drought, it may be because we are entertaining our minds with lust and feeding our sinful desires with suggestive movies, magazines, internet sites, or by simply visiting the local mall. The only remedy called for here is sincere confession and repentance (Proverbs 28:13; I John 1:9). In order to find our souls once again enthralled with the joy of our salvation, we must confess these sins and turn from them (Psalm 51:1-12), resolving to no longer make any provision for the flesh (Romans 13:14).
Jesus, in confronting the Pharisees’ desire for self-exaltation, provides a valuable insight as to how pride relates to faith. The Pharisees were unable to see the truth and beauty of Christ because they were infatuated with their own glory and loved receiving praise from men. Jesus asks them, “How can you believe when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God” (John 5:44)? Saving faith was hindered by their pride. And although this passage speaks specifically of pride obstructing saving faith, I think we can safely apply this principle to our lives as Christians: pride kills faith in Jesus. If we are nurturing self-love, seeking praise and appreciation from our friends, our congregation, our professors, our supervisor, or those who read our blogs, we will find out very quickly that “God opposes the proud” (James 4:6). Our souls will shrivel as we fill them with the glory that comes from man. On the other hand, turning from ourselves and our reputations to exalt Christ at all costs will bring about spiritual renewal since, “[God] gives grace to the humble.”
Love of Money
There is also a direct coorelation between our attachment to stuff and our ability to see the glory of God. Jesus connects our physical gaze with our spiritual sight in Matthew 6:19-23. In verses 19-21, Christ instructs us to store up lasting treasures in heaven rather than temporary riches here on earth. Whether we do this or not will have a significant impact on our affections, for “where [our] treasure is, there [our] heart will be also.” Jesus continues, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (vv. 22-23). In other words, if we are fixed upon the glitter of earthly riches, the brightness God’s glory cannot shine into our hearts and we will only suffer spiritual thirst, not saturation. The solution here is to start taking our eyes of earthly riches. This is often helped through prayer and by regular and consistent giving to our churches, faithful gospel ministries, to the poor and to those in need. Isaiah 58:10-11 is encouraging in this regard,
If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not fail.
Lack of Bible Reading, Meditation, and Prayer
When we neglect Bible reading, meditation, and prayer, we are cutting ourselves off from essential nourishment for our souls. It is impossible to thrive spiritually without feeding our minds and hearts with God’s Word. Psalm 1 reminds us of the benefits of meditation,
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, or stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the sear of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, in al that he does, he prospers (vv. 1-3)
On the other hand, our leaf will wither if we are not planting ourselves near the life-giving streams of God’s Word. This reminder is especially important for those of us to tend toward service and who desire to stay busy and productive. Although it is good to be busy and always abounding in the work of the Lord (I Corinthians 15:58), our work can become empty, heartless, and sapped of power if we are not fueling ourselves with the spiritual food that comes from God’s Word. We need to fight to set aside regular time to read, meditate, and pray over Scripture. It is also beneficial to memorize Scripture so that we can receive refreshment from Biblical truth any time during the day. If we refuse to drink from the well of God’s Word on a regular basis, we should only expect dry ground and withered leaves.
Too Much Time Indoors
It is easy to see why blatant sins like lust, pride, and the love of money can impede spiritual passion and affection. It is not so easy to discern the subtle effects other lifestyle habits have on our zeal and vitality. One area that I find receives little attention is the role of the creation in maintaining our spiritual health. But if the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalms 19:1), and if we are refreshed by seeing God’s glory, it would only make sense to go outside in order to behold that glory! At times I can literally feel my faith revived as I spend a few minutes looking up at the grandeur of a clear night sky, filled with unfathomable expressions of power and creativity. I can find refreshment in a simple hike or walk. And I do not think this is simply because I “love the outdoors.” I love the outdoors, not because I can get REI dividend credits, but because I can see glory; and seeing this glory has often served to restore my weary soul.
Lack of Exercise
This ties in with the last point but belongs in its own category because one does not necessarily need to be outdoors in order to get exercise. Now, lest this sound unspiritual and more like I am suggesting things that are only beneficial to those of a particular physiological makeup, let me have Don Whitney weigh in on this often neglected yet important topic,
Our bodies are not merely disposable containers for our eternal souls. God could have made us to be disembodied souls, living forever in a condition like the souls in Heaven live while waiting for resurrected bodies…But He created us to be complete as a unity of body and soul. . . . One of the ways the body can have a positive effect upon the soul is through recreational physical activity. Because most spiritual practices [disciplines: reading, writing, study, meditation, etc.] are by definition spiritual and not very physical, if our daily work is mostly mental and sedentary then there’s little diversity in the kind of stimuli we experience. And the monotony of that can lessen the impact of our spiritual practices. The variety that recreational physical activity provides to the brain cells and muscle fibers of a body may help to refresh the soul that dwells in it (Simplify Your Spiritual Life)
Many will find their spiritual vitality renewed by simply going on a thirty minute walk or run, or by going for a swim, or by riding their bike, or by hiking some of the trails near their house. I am often amazed at how a little bit of exercise benefits me mentally and spiritually. Perhaps you are pursuing the Lord, mortifying sin, regular in Bible reading and prayer, and yet find your soul dry and dusty—maybe you should go on a run.
Neglect of Responsibilities
When we choose laziness over diligence, this can often lead to spiritual dryness, even depression. And this process usually perpetuates itself: laziness will create spiritual dryness; when we are spiritually dry and depressed, we are usually not powerfully motivated to pursue diligence. But it is precisely at this point that we need to break the cycle. We were made to work—when we subvert this fundamental aspect of our personhood, we will find ourselves spiritually dry and frustrated. Laziness never satisfies. That is one reason why Scripture is replete with commands to pursue diligence and faithfulness. If we find ourselves in a spiritual desert, we should consider whether or not we have been faithful in our responsibilities.
Ironically, when we find ourselves spiritually dry, it is best to not ruminate over our condition for too long—this can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with ourselves and to morbid introspection. This is another situation that can perpetuate itself: the more we experience spiritual drought, the more we are tempted to examine ourselves and look inside; the more we look inside, the more we may experience spiritual frustration. Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones is insightful here,
I suggest that we cross the line from self-examination to introspection when, in a sense, we do nothing but examine ourselves, and when such self-examination becomes the main and cheif end of our life. We are meant to examine ourselves periodically, but if we are always doing it, always, as it were, putting our soul on a plate and dissecting it, that is introspection. And if we are always talking to people about ourselves and our problems and troubles, and if we are forever going to them with that kind of frown upon our face saying: I am in great difficulty-it probably means that we are all the time centered upon ourselves. That is introspection, and that in turn leads to the condition known as morbidity. (Spiritual Depression, 17)
When we are focused on ourselves, for even what we consider a good reason, this can lead to more spiritual dryness because we are turning away from an infinite source of spiritual refreshment to a finite and sinful human being. We must be careful to not let our self-examination turn into a fixed gaze upon our hearts.
Forgetting the Gospel and Living in Legalism
When the Galatian Christians began to drift from the gospel, Paul’s response was to remind them of how they first enjoyed the presence of the Holy Spirit :
Oh foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain-if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith-just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (3:1-6).
The Galatians experienced the freedom and joy of the Holy Spirit, not by keeping commandments in order to gain salvation, but by hearing and believing a message—the gospel message. We are all in danger of drifting like these Galatians; after having received the Holy Spirit by faith, we attempt to perfect ourselves by the flesh and in our own strength; trying to earn some favor with God. This is why I believe Jerry Bridges is right when he reminds us to “Preach the gospel to ourselves everyday.” The truth of the gospel—the benefits of Christ’s substitutionary life and death on our behalf are received by faith alone—regularly poured into our minds and hearts, will guard us from deadening legalism and subsequent spiritual dryness.
A Few Closing Thoughts
None of these suggestions will guard us from all spiritual drought. Because we are sinful and because we live in a fallen world with fallen bodies, we must face up to the reality that spiritual dryness will come again. That is why the Psalmist says that the Word of God restores his soul (Psalm 19:7); that it was in need of restoring implies that his soul was no longer in a happy, satisfied state—it was in need of refreshment. Knowing this and recognizing potential causes of spiritual drought can help us to weather seasons of little or no rain.
Also, these past three posts do not represent an exhaustive list. There are more factors, I am sure, that play into our enjoyment of spiritual saturation or the lack thereof. These are the causes that I have determined to be primary and most important. Yet, the most encouraging word I could give is probably this: there is coming a day when there will be no more drought, only abundance. We will someday enjoy the actual presence of Christ and find at his right hand pleasures forever (Psalm 16:11)—increasing joy and satisfaction for all for eternity. What keeps us moving through the desert is knowing for certain that an oasis lies over the next hill. Let’s keep moving.